Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair described three trends that collectively drove both Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016 and the November 2016 election of Donald Trump.
Speaking at the 2017 Concordia Annual Summit (streamed on Yahoo Finance), Blair asserted that feelings of cultural alienation, economic alienation, and the “revolutionary phenomenon” of social media converged to generate the unexpected outcomes in the UK and U.S.
“I think the drivers behind Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were roughly the same,” Blair told Susan Glasser of Politico. “A large section of people feeling culturally alienated, society changing in ways they didn’t like … issues to do with immigration for example. And then [people feeling] economically alienated post-financial crisis, communities of people feeling left behind, feeling marginalized.”
“And so these very powerful forces … combined with the extraordinarily powerful medium of social media today, which is itself a revolutionary phenomenon, … created this great surge of discontent that led to these two results.”
Blair, who served as the UK prime minister from 1997 to 2007, argued that Brexit is a “destiny changing decision” that should be avoided if possible.
“To take ourselves out of the biggest political union and the largest commercial market right on our doorstep, to which we are now joined by the Channel Tunnel physically, I think is going to diminish us and relegate us as a country,” Blair said. “I think this is something that if we can avoid it, we should.”
He added that he doesn’t know if Brexit could be undone at this point. Nonetheless, automatically going through with Brexit “is a bit like agreeing to a house swap when you haven’t seen the other house … When you actually see the other house — you see the neighborhood, you see what it looks like, you do the structural survey — you may change your mind.”
Blair noted that the world will be watching Trump’s Tuesday speech at the UN General Assembly to see if the administration’s “America First” policy translates to international isolationism.
“People will be looking to see if there is some clarity and coherence around where America stands,” said Blair, who spoke at the UNGA several times. Still a prominent political voice as founder of the nonprofit Tony Blair Institute, Blair added: “The world needs a strong America and it needs a clear America. And it needs an America that’s prepared to stand with its allies and stand up to its foes and generally try to make the world a better place.”
Asked about Trump’s use of Twitter, Blair politely criticized the practice. “Trying to reduce complicated things to 140 characters is,” Blair said, pausing for a few seconds, “Is not productive.”
While saying that he would not be active on Twitter if he were still prime minister, Blair wondered if balanced ideas could actually gain traction on social media.
“Is it possible to get inspiration and enthusiasm behind a sensible way forward?” Blair asked. “Or does the way that politics is conducted today mean that unless you have an extreme message, people just don’t find it interesting?”